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  • Writer's pictureSportrock

Parkinson’s & Adaptive Climbing in the Gym I

Updated: Sep 6, 2022

Over the last 10 years, Molly Donelan, Sportrock Alexandria Director has had the honor of teaching a growing group of individuals at Sportrock and actually creating her dream job in the process. Each week climbers come into the rock climbing gym, gear up in their harnesses and shoes, and climb for upwards of an hour. Besides being climbers, these individuals have a couple of things in common: They are inspiring. They are passionate about their sport. They are incredibly supportive of one another.  And they have Parkinson’s Disease (PD).

Parkinson's & Adaptive Climbing in the Gym I

Climbing helps climbers with Parkinson’s improve balance, strength, and most of all, confidence!

In October of 2012, Molly met Jon Lessin. Jon is an accomplished Doctor, published author, father, husband, cyclist, yogi, jokester, and now, addicted climber.  Jon also has Parkinson's Disease.  When Jon started taking lessons with me, Molly knew very little about PD other than a couple of generalized symptoms. Working with Jon was a huge learning experience and he seemed eager to answer every little question she asked.  He has a remarkably positive attitude and a great sense of humor, never hesitant to make fun of me or laugh at himself.  Molly admires his determination as he fights his way up a new climb, sometimes staying on one move for nearly 30 minutes, refusing to quit.  “Tenacious” was what a Sportrock spectator once called Jon, and actually became the inspiration for his book, “Tenacity”, which he later published!

Jon is one of fourteen individuals with PD to join in the fun at Sportrock over the last four years. As the group continues to grow, so does our outreach and desire to learn. Sportrock has partnered with Parkinson’s Foundation National Capital Area and George Washington University to host a study on the effects of rock climbing on PD, which has not yet been studied and has exciting potential.  Rock climbing primarily helps to improve the flexibility, strength, and balance of individuals with PD and this has becoming increasingly apparent as Molly has watched these climbers grow over the years.

Parkinson's & Adaptive Climbing in the Gym I

What is Parkinson's Disease?

Parkinson’s Disease is a degenerative disease that affects levels of dopamine in the brain. The physical symptoms are widely varied from person to person and can be effectively combatted by medication, but one thing is universal: PD is a disease of movement.  Some of the physical symptoms are slow movements, dyskinesia, balance problems, weight shifting, hand-eye coordination, difficulty with big movements, and tremors.  

Rock climbing primarily helps to improve the flexibility, strength, and balance of individuals with PD.

According to Lisa Ebb, a movement disorder Physical Therapist who has joined in climbing with a couple of the climbers with PD, “Challenge and variation are the two most important principles of exercise in Parkinson’s Disease”.


Check out the Parkinson's Climbing Program video, done by video photographer and Sportrock member, Sylvia Bao.

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